Game of Thrones is an ambitious show, in controversy as much as anything else. Why settle for setting the blogosphere ablaze like Drogon in a fighting pit when you can…well, set the blogosphere ablaze like this episode’s less triumphant, more stomach-churning use of fire? Fans have approached the show’s depiction of sexual violence with scrutiny—some justified, some excessive—for years. “The Dance of Dragons” suggests, sometimes explicitly, that we broaden our focus to all forms of violence in this grim, gory universe. Whether this is a trollish jab at the online hornets’ nest or an earnest attempt to make watching as difficult as it should be will depend on how much goodwill each viewer has left.
Personally, I’ve got quite a bit of goodwill left over from “Hardhome.” And so however horrified I was at Shireen’s screams, however much I hyperventilated and punched my couch and didn’t know if I wanted Stannis to die an instant, excruciating death or win the whole damn kingdom so his daughter wouldn’t have burned for nothing, I’m doing my best to separate my feelings about her death from my feelings towards the show. In fact, I’m choosing to interpret my feelings as a testament to the show.
This is because the problem with onscreen violence isn’t that there’s “too much” of it; “too much” is a criticism that’s a symptom of the problem, not its root. There’s only “too much” murder, or child sacrifice, or rape when human suffering stops affecting us. Complaints about desensitization risk making one sound like a PTA mom trying to keep her teen away from Grand Theft Auto, but they’re at the root of every tweet and recap and op-ed that accuses Game of Thrones in going too far with its female characters’ pain. By laying it on too heavily, the show risks numbing our horror into mere discomfort—and eventually, nothing at all.
Which may be why the show requires no less than a father setting his own child aflame to raise the stakes. (Westeros really is a harder place than Earth, gods included; even the Old Testament didn’t require Abraham to actually go through with it.) And yet Shireen’s death contains within it one of Game of Thrones’ best qualities, inherited from the books it’s based on: illustrating the human consequences of an epic power struggle. We’ve seen them in what Sansa has to endure while other people reap the benefits of her political marriages. Here, we see them in a mother who only learns to love her child while she’s watching that child die. What’s important is that we’re still able to see.
There’s also the unusually meta conversation between Hizdahr and Tyrion that precedes this week’s other showstopper. “There’s always been enough death in the world for my taste. I can do without it in my leisure time,” Tyrion says. “What great things have ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?” Hizdahr replies. They’re talking, of course, about the fighting pits Dany’s barely bringing herself to tolerate. But it also feels like a thinly veiled mission statement from the showrunners: “We don’t enjoy this, either,” they seem to be arguing, “But all the blood and guts is part of what makes this show awesome, so…”
Like I said before, you could read this exchange in a few different ways, some more flattering than others. To some, it’s a condescending “calm down, kids, we know what we’re doing” rebuke to the audience. To the more trusting, it’s a good-faith explanation of why Game of Thrones is the show it is. And as of right now, I trust this show, because last week’s battle and this week’s bloodshed felt nothing like Game of Thrones’ worst self—a series that sticks rape in the background at Craster’s Keep and becomes almost as fascinated by Theon’s endless downward spiral as Ramsay is.
It helps that “The Dance of Dragons” isn’t the endless litany of despair that was this year’s midseason. The episode doesn’t end on Stannis’ pinched, self-loathing face; instead, it follows Daenerys as she quite literally rises above the bullshit she’s had to put up with these past few months. Even with Tyrion around, Meereen was an untenable quagmire from the start, and while Game of Thrones isn’t as preoccupied with the intractability of institutions as, say, The Wire—arguably, as dark as the show is, it subscribes to something like the Great (Wo)Man model of history, with individuals like Littlefinger and Jon Snow able to change the game entirely if they play their cards right—it’s not optimistic about Dany’s ability to reverse an entire culture. Nor does the show see Meereen as a good use of her time, any more than we fed-up viewers do. It just hasn’t shown it until now.
Hence Drogon, dragon ex machina, descending on the arena. In the books, as on the show, the move has the feeling of George R.R. Martin (and now, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) rocketing himself out of the narrative hole he’s sunk into, but pulled off with just enough panache to feel thrilling rather than manipulative. And because Dany’s estrangement from her dragons, and by extension herself, has been a season-long theme, Drogon’s return has the feeling of an actual emotional payoff rather than a mere spectacle.
Besides, the abruptness of his arrival—and Dany’s departure—is part of the moment. There’s an awful lot happening when Dany takes a second to close her eyes: the Sons of the Harpy have made their big move; her fiancé is dead; Jorah has finally made his way back into her good graces. And there’s an awful lot she’s leaving behind: Meereen is probably lost, but she’s leaving Daario, Jorah, and poor Tyrion a hell of a mess to deal with.
She doesn’t care, and none of them do either. Daenerys Targaryen is the first human to ride a dragon in several centuries. It doesn’t matter what scraps she’s leaving her advisers to pick up, mere days after one of them joined her. What matters is what they were lucky enough to witness.